So what on earth can all this ancient theological reasoning mean for you at Christmas tide? Christmas celebrates the incarnation—the theological reality that the LORD has not abandoned his creation but entered into it. Proverbs 8, as Gregory reads it, illustrates the LORD’s great Wisdom in creation and in incarnation. Proverbs 8 draws out the Wisdom of Christmas.
From the most straight-forward perspective, Proverbs doesn’t have much to do with Christmas. But certain central doctrines in Christianity—“common places” as theologians call them—serve as crossroads for all the teachings of Scripture. The doctrine of the incarnation—the fact that God became man in Jesus Christ, which we celebrate at Christmas—is one of these common places. Although Proverbs doesn’t appear to connect to Christmas the book deals with the physical, incarnational, challenges of human life in practically every verse.
Proverbs 8 is a picture of Wisdom incarnate.
In 1 Cor 1:22–24 the Apostle Paul writes, “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (NIV). To the Church Fathers these verses didn’t just allow but demanded that everything in Scripture that refers to wisdom be read in connection to Jesus Christ. But this interpretive move precipitated one of the most significant theological debates in all of Church history. It centered on the text of Proverbs 8:22–31 and the doctrine of the incarnation.
Proverbs 8 and Arius
Wisdom is speaking in these verses (see Prov 8:3–4). Her voice is a poetic device—the personification of one of God’s attributes so that we can hear her speak and learn her story. The verbs draw out a primal birth metaphor: brought forth (v. 22), formed (v. 23), given birth (vv. 24–25). The poetry describes Wisdom’s “birth” to make one fundamental point—Wisdom precedes the creation of the world. Absolutely everything that has been made was made under her watchful eye. She was there “day by day” rejoicing and watching creation unfold (Prov 8:30–31; Gen 1:5–31). Within the context of Proverbs this means that we can trust Wisdom intimately and absolutely because she understands how the world works. She understands how we work within the world better than we do (Prov 8:12–21).
But this very birth metaphor, beautiful as it is, creates a theological challenge. The New Testament tells us that Jesus is Wisdom, and yet here we see Wisdom “brought forth,” “formed,” or “given birth” (Prov 8:22). As Arius (perhaps the most notorious heretic in Church history) argued, if the Son was “brought forth” then there was a time when he was not and this means he must be fundamentally different from God. A “created” Christ is a creature of a lower order than eternal God because he was once “brought forth.”
Gregory of Nyssa’s Incarnational Interpretation
In Book III of his master work, Contra Eunomium, the orthodox Church Father, Gregory of Nyssa, responded by making some brilliant theological connections. First, he grants a point to Arius and his followers—Gregory concedes that Wisdom (read Jesus) was born. But what does that mean and when did that take place?
Next Gregory pushes on the poetic language of Proverbs 8 to show that if Arius takes everything in the passage at face value in a wooden and literalistic way then it becomes absurd and falls apart completely (e.g., vv. 27–29). In other words, Arius is treating v. 22 literally but he cannot apply the same logic across the whole passage.